Holocaust Conference in Ukraine to Focus on AJC Mass Graves Project

Sep 12, 2011, 11:25 ET from American Jewish Committee

NEW YORK, Sept. 12, 2011 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- AJC is organizing an international conference in Ukraine to discuss Holocaust remembrance and education as part of its ongoing project to protect and memorialize the mass graves of victims of the Nazis and collaborators in Eastern Europe. The conference will take place in Kyiv, September 20-21.

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"The conference is about coming to terms with this critical and painful part of Ukrainian history," said Rabbi Andrew Baker, AJC Director of International Jewish Affairs, who, together with Deidre Berger, director of AJC Berlin, is leading the mass graves project.

The project, launched in January by an AJC-led international coalition, has been made possible in part by the data assembled by Father Patrick Desbois and his Paris-based organization, Yahad in Unum, and is funded by the German government.

Hundreds of thousands of Jews in Ukraine perished during the Holocaust and their bodies were buried in shallow mass graves. Many are unmarked, but even those sites that are known frequently extend through forests and fields. In some locations, people may be unknowingly walking over the graves or even digging into the burial grounds.

"To preserve the sanctity of these mass grave sites it is essential that their full perimeters are determined, so they can be fully protected, probably with a perimeter wall," said Rabbi Baker. "Where exposed human remains are found, they must be reburied and covered. Rabbinic authorities are working with us to insure that everything is carried out with full respect to Halachah."

By the end of the year, topographical maps and construction plans for five pilot sites are to be completed and they should be officially designated by government authorities as protected heritage sites.

Baker, who visited several sites in early July, said, "The Nazis succeeded not only in the murder of these Jewish victims but in hiding the evidence. Today grass and trees cover these graves. The careful observer may spot human bone fragments on the surface but who will imagine that thousands of bodies lie buried below?"

Construction work is expected to be finished by next fall, with the full perimeters identified, the sites protected, the forest undergrowth cleaned up, and memorial plaques unveiled.

Rabbi Baker spearheaded AJC's project with the Polish government to protect and memorialize the Belzec death camp, which was dedicated in 2004.

The Kyiv conference will also focus on the political and practical steps necessary for advancing Holocaust remembrance and education, recognizing the importance of helping young Ukrainians understand what transpired in their country. It should generate increased support for those few institutions now engaged in teacher training.

The protection of Holocaust mass graves can also provide teaching opportunities that inform a new generation of Ukrainians about the Jewish communities that were once in their midst. "We hope that local officials and citizens will recognize that this is part of their history and that they will join in the dedication of these sites and their ongoing protection," Rabbi Baker said.

In addition to educators and researchers, participants will include national political leaders and diplomats. Among those expected to speak at the conference are U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Tefft, German Ambassador Hans-Jurgen Heimsoeth, and Governor Borys Klymchuk of Ukraine's western Volyn region, where Jews made up nearly half of the prewar population.

SOURCE American Jewish Committee